The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year A: River Sunday

Knowing Rivers, Head to Foot

Readings for Year A: 2013-2014

Care for Creation Sermon for the Season of Creation

by Nick Utphall, pastor at St. Stephen’s ELCA, Monona, WI

 

The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year A

River Sunday

Genesis 8:20-22; 9:12-17

Psalm 104:27-33

Revelation 22:1-5

Matthew 28:1-10

 

It’s been noted that trees frame or outline the biblical story. From the original tree in the garden, a tree of goodness that nevertheless got us into this mess, leading to the tree of the cross, planted at the crossroads, the mark of the path back to blessing, and finally the tree for the healing of the nations in the last chapter of the Bible. 

 

Well, if those three trees tower over the Bible’s narrative, we could also on this Sunday of our Season of Creation highlight that “a river runs through it.” From the beginning stories of Eden, to the river that “makes glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (Psalm 46:4), right up and past that last tree standing in the end of Revelation, the course of the Bible’s river current.

 

As we approach those rivers of the Bible, as we renew our thinking of God with waters, perhaps we begin with images of rivers we know, and what those rivers do. We may first picture the mighty Mississippi. It literally gives shape to our country, running as a dividing line right down the center, not only marking the borders of ten of our fifty states, but also more generally, the east-west divide of our country, as the old radio broadcast designations indicated (with K vs. W). 

 

Or we may think about the Wisconsin, the river that gave name to our state and is known as America’s Hardest Working River for its elevation drop and hydroelectric dams. But just as it’s known for its work, it is also known for rest and refreshment, with canoers camping on sandbars and that scenic vacation playground of the Wisconsin Dells. The Wisconsin is among the rivers that give shape to identity, to help us know who we are.

 

As on our own maps and in our geography, so we could mark the rivers of the Bible. Sometimes they are the dividing lines, other times a mark of identity. Though we don’t directly encounter it in our readings today, if we went scouting for scriptural streams, we might first identify the Bible’s story with the Jordan River. That was the threshold, marking the entry to the Promised Land, when the people knew they had arrived after the exodus from slavery to an assurance of God’s blessing. As the book of Joshua begins, they prayed at the river, whose waters heaped up into a pile for them to cross, a riparian version of the Red Sea.

 

It was not only the threshold of a holy land, but of a heavenly realm. It was while he was walking along the Jordan River, the prophet Elijah caught his ride on the chariot of fire up into heaven.

 

And, of course, we associate the River Jordan with baptism. It was there in the wilderness that John was baptizing, where all the crowds were going out from the city for a vacation, to have their lives refreshed and renewed. It is out from those waters that the stories begin telling of Jesus’ ministry.

 

Recalling the River Jordan is an ongoing good reminder for us, that these stories and the heart of our Christian faith is about God’s presence in our world. These aren’t theoretical or intangible, invisible spiritualized ideas. That river was a real, familiar, physical place. The locus of salvation, of God’s work, is not far off but among us.

 

And visiting the Jordan today also sheds special insight for us, brings us closer to God’s message. See, the river is still marked as a border, but now a militarized one, as Israel keeps it in lockdown against the Palestinians, between the West Bank and the east bank in Jordan. Trucks with machine guns mounted on them cruise over the desert hills, while enormous fences stop even wild animals from moving about.

 

It also mirrors treatment of others of our rivers. Lush groves of date palms and tomato plants grow up and down the Jordan River valley, but this green comes at the expense of irrigation that dwindles the waters of the river, so that the Dead Sea is itself really dying, evaporating away to nothing.

 

These same sorts of expenses come with what we do with the grand Colorado River in our American southwest, where the river is diverted to the desert to grow iceberg lettuce in California’s central valley, or to gaudy fountains up and down the Las Vegas strip, or to evaporate from Lake Mead piled up behind the Hoover Dam. This is the river that carved us the Grand Canyon, yet now infamously went for years without even reaching to its mouth, every last drop taken by humans along the way.

 

When allowed to flow, we remember that our rivers work to purge our ills. Our contamination of fertilizers and pesticides wash out from our farm fields, flow down from our parking lots, carry chemicals and departing debris and even the topsoil that we need and should be preserving, washing it all down, down to the delta of the Gulf of Mexico, or floating it out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

 

Again, if we picture fire and rivers, we likely don’t first imagine Elijah, but may instead recall the infamous Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, when it spontaneously combusted, the water itself catching on fire because it was so polluted.

 

Yet that same burning river also begins to highlight a shift from that infamous moment in 1969 the environmental protection movement in our country began to pick up steam. The Clean Water Act was a direct result. The Cuyahoga itself has been cleaned up immensely. From the low point, life can be restored, renewed.

 

That isn’t just a tribute to those who have established critical environmental policies, but is the very spirit present in our Bible readings today.

 

See, our first reading begins with precisely a shift, reforming our thinking. These verses that follow the Flood are about a promise from God, a covenant with all of creation. They signal God’s intention of blessing, from generation to generation, for all creatures.  Any destruction of waters will not come at God’s hand. Instead, as the Psalm assures, God’s work is for sustenance, for ongoing life, a constant presence that nurtures and nourishes.

 

We may hear the covenant promise and the assurance of sustenance both as a word of grace and gospel, and also as a challenge and calling. God’s engagement is guaranteed. But that raises questions for us:  how are we treating the waters? Are our actions caring for life, or leaving it to wither up and die? As we take waters from streams for irrigation, are the crops we grow worth the cost of life for fish and crustaceans and mollusks and insects and aquatic plants? Our actions and our ethics are guided by God’s striving for abundance. That means every time we approach a river, we are approaching a heavenly realm, a place of God’s presence and work.

 

Even more, as we approach a river or a stream, it contains that reminder of our own identity.  Even the sound of the living water this morning, those flowing splashing noises of our baptismal font, take you back to your origins, to the start of God’s promise in your own baptism. Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism with the promise, “You are my son, the beloved.” And that is what your baptism says, too. You are God’s daughter, God’s son. God loves you and is pleased with you. 

 

And from those waters, from that start of his story, Jesus went into ministry. You, too, you anointed children of God. This visit to the river of life is also a commissioning, for you to get to work, to follow in Jesus’ wet footprints, out of the river and into caring for life.

 

Yet that is not the end of the story. The end of the story is in Revelation. And it is in resurrection.  Our reading from Revelation is one of my favorite passages of the Bible, one of the most beautiful. We too often are led to expect that Revelation is the scary, nasty kind of stuff. We’re told it’s about doom and damnation and devils. But those who try to read the story that way are missing the point. It’s not a story of punishment, but of God’s presence with us, on our planet, for good.

 

The culmination of Revelation, maybe the culminating picture of our whole Bible, is in the image of a river that flows out from God. It’s a river that nourishes the tree of life, that without interruption bears fruit to feed and heal. The waters of the river are crystal clear and bright, and there is no corruption and nothing wrong there. Picture the Cuyahoga, purged and rejoicing.  Picture a brook babbling and laughing with glee. Picture the green, stinky Yahara made new.  Picture the Jordan flowing and bringing life even into the Dead Sea. Picture yourself, splashed clean and fresh, emerging from the water for new life.

 

This is where we’re headed, where God’s current is carrying us. Our God is a God of resurrection. All creation recognizes it. The earth trembles with anticipation of the fullness of blessing. Already we know and expect it, we anticipate and believe it. We join with God and all creation in this promise, working in our world and our lives.

 

Shall we gather at the river?

 

 

A note on other parts of the liturgy for River Sunday

 

This sermon was clearly intended to be followed with the hymn of the day, “Shall We Gather at the River.” 

 

There are many good songs to fit the image for the day.  References for rivers and waters among my ELCA resources would include the celebrative “Let All Things Now Living.”  Baptismal hymns are an obvious choice, particularly “Baptized and Set Free” by Cathy Skogen-Soldner. The story of Horatio Spafford and his “When Peace like a River (It Is Well with My Soul)” fit the flow of the texts, too.  It may be an occasion for the congregation to hear “Shine, Jesus, Shine” in a new way.  Settings of Amos 5:24 (“let justice roll down like waters”) provide a fitting call to action and vocation.  Hymns like “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” tie Jesus’ emergence from the river to our own lives.  For laments in the face of ecological crisis, settings of Psalm 137 may be appropriate, with language of laying down our harps and weeping beside Babylonian rivers.

 

The font in my congregation has a re-circulating pump, for the audible sign of the “living water.”  Be thinking of ways to bring those sounds to your worshipping assembly (or bringing them to the sounds!).  As Ben Stewart suggests in his book A Watered Garden:  Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology, growing plants around the font indicate it is an “oasis of life.”  Maybe this Sunday would also be an occasion for asperges, sprinkling with water from the font, as a thanksgiving and remembrance of baptism.